Do the write thing: do authors use autopen? | Books

A signature in a book may seem like a few seconds of work, but – as evidenced by Bob Dylan’s recent use of an autopen – it’s a big endeavour when hundreds of books need to be signed.

Dylan has issued an apology after admitting using a machine to autograph 900 limited “hand-signed” editions of his book The Philosophy of Modern Song, which sold for $599 (£498) each. But he’s not the first person to make use of the technology. Since a long time, autopens have been used openly by politicians. In fact, Barack Obama was the first president to adopt legislation using an autopen signature. They’ve not been without controversy, however; in 2004 then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was criticised for using a mechanical signature to sign letters of condolence to relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it comes to the literary realm, autopens are less common. Signings are often held at festivals and live events, so this might not surprise. There, books are signed in front of readers and sometimes personally dedicated, so there’s no way to use an autopen without everyone seeing. Even though the author is closed to the public, many authors claim they wouldn’t use an automatic pen, no matter how many books are being signed.

Author Juno Dawson says she “wouldn’t dream of using a robot pen because I feel they’d make the signed editions less special”. She adds: “People treasure signed copies because they’ve been personally signed by the author and it’s a bond of trust between me and my readers.”

Laura Bates, who once signed around 1,000 books in one go, is equally against the autopen, stating that “signing books is the absolute cherry on the top of the luckiest job in the world”. Instead, she uses “hot sugary tea” as signing fuel.

Janice Hallett signed nearly 9,000 books in six days. She said that calluses, blisters, and paper-cuts were all part of the process. But while using an autopen would save her from injuries, she wouldn’t because “nothing beats knowing readers can have a book that’s signed”.

Signing sessions of large scale can require military-grade preparation. Crime author Louise Candlish once signed 6,000 books in one day, which “involved a team of five people each doing different jobs” such as “opening the book to the title page, sliding the book towards me, taking the signed book and stacking” and so on. The endeavour was “exhausting” and Candlish burned through eight to 10 pens. She says she had to take regular breaks “to do hand exercises, stretching and squeezing and waggling”.

Dawson signed 5,000 copies of her novel Her Majesty’s Royal Coven in one day at the printers, but even more difficult was signing more than 10,000 end papers for her Fairyloot special edition. “They came to my flat in 17 huge boxes and I suddenly felt the magnitude of the task as I’d agreed to do them all over three weeks,” she says. “In the end it became a nine-to-five job. I set up a table in front of the TV, and binged on The Boys and much of The Crown. Due to bad posture I ended up with a spasm in my right shoulder which wasn’t ideal.”

Sometimes an author’s habits can influence their signing style. Sarah Vaughan spent two days signing 1,500 copies of Reputation. She was sent boxes of printed endpapers by her publisher to sign. “Because I used shorthand for 15 years as a journalist, and still use it if I’m interviewing someone, my signature can get pretty illegible if I don’t concentrate, so I was conscious of needing of focus,” she says. “But your hand also aches if you sign too many on the trot and I found it impossible to do more than about 30 without taking a quick break. No ice packs – but much wiggling of fingers and wrist rotation. No one wants RSI.”

She believes it was worth the effort: “I know, as a customer, just how extra special a signed hardback feels. I have a signed Elizabeth Strout and very much wish I had a signed Hilary Mantel.”

Authors must decide which name they want to sign when signing. This can have a significant impact on their workload. Candlish says that for her big signing she made the “fatal mistake” of deciding to write her whole name, Louise Candlish. Ever since then, she’s made sure to shorten it to L Candlish for larger signings.

Signings can have their pitfalls, but some authors have learned how to avoid them. Bates said she is worried about spelling mistakes and mispelling names during signings. “So I always take a spare copy of my book with me to signing events because this allays my anxiety.”

Although it may irritate wrist joints and cause mania in signees, Dylan is a rare exception when it comes to autopen. In fact you won’t hear too many authors complain about signing books. “Before I was successful, I had several books out that I only signed for family members and even then they were probably just being kind,” says Candlish. “It’s a joy to sign for thousands of readers. And as a reader, I love knowing the author has held the book before me.”